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Rose de Burford and English Embroidery

By Toni Mount

My new book, How to Survive in Medieval England, published by Pen & Sword, is a guide to travelling in history: what to expect, how to dress, how to stay safe and what to look for on the menu.

If you were able to go back in time to medieval England, so much would be very different and so many things missing – all technology, from engines to the Internet. All work would be done by hand. But what is a woman’s place in the employment market? From the fourteenth century to the late fifteenth it can be far more independent than you might think. Most women are ‘femmes couvertes’, that is, in the eyes of the law, they are ‘covered’ by their husbands. This means that although they may work as, say, baxters (female bakers), while their husbands have quite different occupations, if the women take on apprentices, owe or are owed money or are found to be selling underweight loaves, the law deals with their husbands. The husbands hold the contracts of apprenticeship, any profits from the women’s baking trade go to their spouses but it’s the husbands who are prosecuted for faulty bread sold and pursued for any debts the women owe.

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However, there is another category: ‘femmes soles’ are women who stand ‘alone’, not covered by their husbands. Obviously, any widows who continue to run their deceased husbands’ businesses come into this category but married women can also be femmes soles – with their husbands’ consent in the first place – responsible for their own business contracts, profits and debts. One woman who has made a great success of running her own business, as well as taking on her husband’s after his death, is Rose de Burford. In my new book, I use ‘interviews’ as a means of bringing to life the situation of various real people of the times, so let’s ask Rose about being a femme sole:

‘Good day, Mistress Burford. Can you tell us about yourself?’

‘I was born in London in King Edward I’s reign. My father was Thomas Romayn, Alderman and one-time Lord Mayor of London in 1309-10. He was a wealthy wool merchant and pepperer, importing spices, supplying King Edward II with exotic wares: cloves, cinnamon and sugar among them. I also had contracts with King Edward and Queen Isabella for exquisitely embroidered vestments and trimmings.’

‘So, you’re an embroiderer?’

‘No. I don’t do the stitching myself. I wouldn’t have patience for the couching of silken and gold threads. I employ out-workers and then supervise and co-ordinate the work. The king commissioned a cope that took a year to make and cost £100.’

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‘What’s a cope?’

‘You don’t know? It’s a semi-circular cloak worn by bishops and the like. This one was rich indeed, spangled with coral beads – the finest in Christendom, I think – the queen sent it as a gift to the Holy Father in Rome. Imagine that: it’s being worn by the Pope himself! I’m most proud of that.’

‘Did your husband approve of your business?’

‘Of course. It brought in money; why would he not? John de Burford was my father’s business partner as a pepperer and wool merchant but was a mercer too. Seeing you’re so ignorant: mercers import the finest textiles. When I married John, I learned everything about his various trades too. He was an Alderman and a Sheriff of the City in 1303-04. We hoped he would be elected Lord Mayor in 1322 but he died before that happened, so Hamo de Chigwell, a fishmonger, was elected – again. Since then, there’s been a muddle over who’s the mayor, betwixt Hamo and the goldsmith, Nicholas de Farndon. It was Lord Mayor Farndon who sent a letter last September, addressed to the Mayor of Dover, demanding to know why Dover had confiscated a shipload of pepper, zedoary and nutmegs of mine, requiring payment of £9 for its release. This was despite a writ from the king, pardoning me of any customs duties in lieu of the considerable debt the Royal Wardrobe still owes me.’

‘Was the dispute resolved?’

‘It was and to my satisfaction, except for a barrel-load of zedoary that went missing whilst in their hands.’

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‘I was about to ask…’

‘What’s zedoary, I suppose?’ [Sigh] ‘It’s a bitter spice from far off India – very expensive.’

‘Thank you, mistress. I won’t waste any more of your valuable time.’

‘Just as well, I have a consignment of sugar to send to the king. Business can’t be interrupted for the likes of you. Get you gone.’ 

The Butler-Bowden Cope, 1330–50, now at the V&A Museum – Wiklimedia Commons

Rose may not have embroidered the cope herself but English embroidery, at the time known as Opus Anglicanum or ‘English Work’, was the envy of Europe. Every bishop who was of any importance wanted vestments decorated with English Work to demonstrate his status by wearing this epitome of luxury. The pope would have been well pleased and impressed with his gift from the King and Queen of England.

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Rose de Burford was a very wealthy widow, owning numerous properties, including tenements in London and country estates in Surrey, Kent and Sussex. Her own country residence was at Charlton in Kent but I cannot discover whether that is now Charlton in south London (but then in the county of Kent) or a place of the same name near Dover. Either would have been convenient at each end of her business: for sales to customers in the city, or for overseeing the importing and exporting of goods. Rose could afford to pay for the construction of a chapel on the south side of the church of St Thomas the Apostle in Cullum Street, in Vintry Ward, in the City of London. She had a son, James, who became a knight, and a daughter Katherine – for whom I have found no further information.

When Rose died in 1329, she wished to be buried in Lesnes Abbey, now in South London but then in Kent. Although the abbey was dismantled when Henry VIII closed down all the monasteries in England in the 1540s, the ruins of Lesnes remain in a public park and can be visited for free today. The site of Rose’s burial is still marked with a small plaque – the only evidence of her life – if you can find it.

The ruins of Lesnes Abbey, burial place of Rose de Burford – photo by GM

Readers can find out far more about medieval lives, meet some of the characters involved and get a ‘taste’ of the food of the time in How to Survive in Medieval England, my new book from Pen & Sword, published on 30th June 2021 and available for pre-order now on Amazon.

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for www.MedievalCourses.com and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons. Click here to visit Toni’s website.

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